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Remembering a father figure who moulded us

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by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne,
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Former Chief of Defence Staff

Fifteen years ago, I was commanding SLNS Sauyra, the flagship of the Sri Lanka Navy, stationed at the Colombo Port. I had just returned from India after finishing my tenure as Defence Adviser at our High Commission in New Delhi. Our task was to sail into deep sea towards the equator in search of LTTE arms smuggling ships. We used to patrol for 21 days at a stretch and be in the harbour for 10 days for our much deserved break.

I vividly remember that day—Friday 12th August 2005. We had our Inter Command Volleyball tournament at Welisara, followed by a dinner. Our ships are ‘dry’ at sea (meaning no liquor is served onboard when out at sea) and this party following the volleyball tournament was a good opportunity for us to relax after a 22-day dry spell. 

It was around 9 PM on that day when I received a call from Madura, the Personal Security Officer of then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The Minister had promised me that he would visit my ship when I met him last time. My vessel was due to sail to Vishakapatnum Indian Naval Dockyard for medium refit—a US$ 20 million job arranged free of cost to the Sri Lankan government due to skilled negotiations of our Foreign Minister Kadirgamar! I thought the call was about the minister’s visit.

But what I heard from Madura was shocking. He said in a voice choked with emotion: “Sir, Minister was shot. His body is lying in the Colombo Mortuary. I am going back to his residence with the madam. Please come.”

So, LTTE has ultimately taken their prime target! 

I rushed to the Colombo mortuary from Welisara.

On my way, my mind went back to the day that I had met Mr Kadirgamar. I had been selected to the post of Defence Adviser, Sri Lanka High Commission (SLHC), New Delhi, India in November 2001. I was given an appointment to meet the Minister prior to my departure to India 9 AM at his residence. Half an hour was allocated for the meeting. There were also two clerical workers who were going to an Embassy in a Western country also waiting to see the Minister after me. I was surprised to note that the Minister used to meet all our staff (diplomats or the clerical staff) posted to foreign missions prior to their departure. When he saw me in uniform, he asked the others to meet him first, finished their calls fast and sat with me for a long interview. He knew the Navy well; his elder brother had once commanded it. He inquired about my foreign training exposures and advised me on the important appointment I was going to hold for the next three years. His briefing aptly covered the importance of India to us. 

Our half-an-hour meeting went on for one and half hours. Minister who was extremely busy but ready to spend time with a newly appointed diplomat to brief him and motivate him before he took up appointment in a foreign country! I was so impressed and determined to do my best in my new post.

When I reached the mortuary, the Minister’s body was lying on the postmortem table. The postmortem was over and the staff at mortuary were preparing the body to be transferred to an undertaker. They allowed me to see the body. His chest had been opened for the postmortem. One gunshot had gone piercing the heart damaging the main arteries. Lying on the table was the heart that had won love and respect of all Sri Lankans, Trinity rugby colours (1948/1949), the captaincy of the college cricket team (1950), Sri Lanka schools record in 110 meters hurdles, Trinity Lion in Athletics (1950), the first Duncan White Challenge cup for Athletics in 1948 and prestigious Ryde Gold Medal for best all round student at Trinity College in 1950.

Achieving glory

In 1950, young Kadirgamar went to the University of Colombo and then to the Peradeniya University to study law and graduated with an LLB (Hons) degree. He travelled to India in 1951 and 1952 for all-India university games and won 110 metres hurdles title in both years. He passed the Law College exam with a first class and took oaths as an Advocate at Supreme Courts of Ceylon. He then won scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1960, he obtained a BLitt from University of Oxford and became a barrister at Inner Temple in London. He was the second Sri Lankan (after Lalith Athulathmudali) to become the President of Oxford Union.

Kadirgamar was working abroad as a reputed international lawyer until President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga invited him to serve this country. She made him a National List Member of Parliament and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  

I consider it a privileged to have served under such an eminent Foreign Minister. He very well understood the importance of India in our foreign policy. He had so many friends there. We who served at SLHC, New Delhi, as junior diplomats always benefited from Mr Kadirgamar’s visits to New Delhi. Ministers Natwar Singh, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Pranab Mukherjee or Ministers Mani Shankar Iyar or Kapil Sibal were our Minister’s close friends. He always introduced us, the young diplomats, to those eminent Indian leaders.

The usually calm SLHC would become a hive of activity when our Deputy High Commissioner, Chinnaiah announced, “The Minister is coming next week”. All important briefs and reports were prepared and updated. The Minister had the habit of listening to us and getting our views. My friend Saj U Mendis, who was a First Secretary at that time, would continue his brief until the Minister said, “I got your point Saj”. He stayed with our High Commissioner, Mangala Moonasinghe at the latter’s official residence. Mr and Mrs Munasinghe looked after the Minister and his wife with love and affection. When he stayed in a hotel, I was responsible for looking after his security. He was a prime target of the LTTE. The Indian government was aware of it and provided him with maximum security.

Minister Kadirgamar was a great orator. He would come to New Delhi, taking the Srilankan flight that left Colombo in the afternoon. He used to rest for four hours in the flight and have a light dinner prior to landing at New Delhi around 7 PM. Then, he went straight to the hotel and prepared his speech to be delivered the following day. With his trusted lieutenant and personal assistant Lenagala (Lena) on his side, he would work till late in the night. When his wife accompanied him, she would ask him to go to bed. We would take over the hotel business centre and convert it into our Secretariat temporarily during the ministerial visit. 

Once after Minister Kadirgamar’s speech, The Hindu editor and Ranji trophy cricketer, N Ram, who is the Minster’s personal friend, had this to write in an editorial: “When Lakshman speaks India listens.” The minister’s speeches were brilliant; he understood India well and Indian leaders respected him. He was a dear friend of India, and Sri Lanka gained tremendously from that friendship.

Among impromptu speeches the Minister has delivered, the one he made in London in September 2004 when he met the Sri Lankan cricketers during a dinner reception stands out. He highlighted the difference between National cricketers and our politicians in his speech replete with wit. (It is available at https://www.cricketmachan.com/cricstories/witty-speech-late-lakshman-kadirgamar-2004/)

While working under Minister Kadirgamar, I learnt three important things about India:

No protocol for friends: the Minister’s best friend was Pranab Mukherjee, very senior Politician from the Congress party. He was the Minister of Defence in 2004. He became India’s Finance Minister, External Affairs Minister and later the President of India. During one of the visits by Minister Kadirgamar to New Delhi in 2004, a meeting was scheduled at the meeting room of the hotel where the Minister was staying (Taj Palace Hotel) with Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister of Defence  of India. Our Minister informed me to tell him when Mukherjee was leaving his office. When I did so, Minister Kadirgamar came down in the lift from 5th floor and received Mukherjee at the entrance to the hotel. Then they went to the meeting room together. After the meeting also Minister Kadirgamar walked up to the car of the Indian Minister. Later, when I told him that as per protocol he had to receive Mukherjee at the meeting room, he said: ” Pranab Mukherjee is my friend. There is no protocol for friends! “

In a democratic country, do not forget the Opposition: When our Minister visited New Delhi, he made it a point to meet government leaders such as the PM, Minister of External Affairs, Defence Minister, etc., and thereafter the Opposition leaders.

One day, I asked him why?  He said “Ravi, do not forget, India is a democracy. In a democracy, one day the Opposition will come into power. It may be weeks, months or years. But when they come to power, they will remember you.” How true! It was a BJP-led government that was in power then. When we defeated the LTTE in 2009, India had a Congress-led government.

Indian monsoon is very important to Sri Lanka: Minister Kadirgamar would call and inquire about the monsoon in India. He would ask whether rain was heavy or mild and whether sufficient water had been received in agricultural areas or not. One day, I asked him why he was so keen about Indian monsoons.  He said, “Ravi, the Indian economy depends on the monsoon. When they get enough water, they will have a good crop of rice, wheat and vegetables. So, the government does not have to give grants to farmers and will have money to help neighbouring countries like us”. Brilliant thinking!

We miss the great Minister who groomed us. The diplomats recruited during Minister Kadirgamar’s tenure are now holding high positions as Ambassadors and High Commissioners today, due to excellent training they received from him. He wanted us to observe, learn and perform well for the country.

One day, Minister Kadirgamar was rushing to the President’s House with a junior diplomat at the time (I think its Chanaka Talpahewa) to meet President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. They were scheduled to meet the Russian Foreign Minister. Suddenly, the Minister stopped, looked at Chanaka carefully, walked up to him and adjusted his tie knot, saying, “Now you look better.” That was how the great man groomed the junior diplomats.

He was a wonderful person—a father figure. We miss him.

 



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Features

Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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